“Oh Alison, if I thought I could just go and play golf, I would.”
I was standing in the car park of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia, late one Wednesday night, talking to Penny Wilkinson about the Overcomers Outreach group she had just led.
Penny continued: “Some days I say to God, ‘When are you going to let me just go and play golf?’”
She was not being entirely serious; she says most things with a sense of humour, and I can’t imagine her ever whiling away her time playing golf. But her words revealed how hard it can be, working with broken people (especially out of your own brokenness)—how sometimes you’d just rather quit, and leave them and their problems to themselves, while you go and amuse yourself elsewhere. Still, working with broken people is what Penny does.
The beginning of a habit
Penny began drinking as a teenager. She grew up in a family whose members enjoyed a very civilized drink each evening before dinner (brandy in the winter; Pimm’s in the summer). When Penny and her siblings returned from boarding school for the holidays, as a sign of their adult awakening, they were allowed to participate in this evening ritual.
From the very beginning, Penny loved the effect of alcohol. She felt raised to a level of feeling normal when she had it in her system; it ‘coloured her in’. In her teens, she went to parties and had no control over her drinking. This behaviour was, however, considered unacceptable by her family, so she struggled to control it during her school years. (In Penny’s immediate family, there were no alcoholics, but there were some lurking further back in the family tree.)
After school, however, Penny went wild and her journey into full-blown alcoholism began. The harder life got, the more Penny drank. However, living as a practising alcoholic was harder: Penny says, “The drink convinces you that it is your solution. You live as though you have a monster inside of you, screaming for satisfaction, and you need to betray all your personal values to satisfy it. Then you must face the consequences of your inebriated behaviour. It’s a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Also, to survive, you need to remain in denial that you have a problem.”
However, in spite of her addiction, Penny went off to university and excelled. Successful jobs in accounting and recruiting followed, and then Penny started her own business in financial recruiting. During university, Penny met Andrew in a pub. They were married in 1989, and three children were born to them in quick succession. Struggling with the demands of parenting, community disdain for stay-at-home mums, unrecognized post-natal depression, her family’s “You’ll be right” attitude, and discontentment with her life, Penny was further compelled to drink. It continued to be a solution in the short-term.
Then the children started school, and Penny could breathe again. But the drinking continued. One day another mother from her children’s school recognized that Penny was in trouble, and invited her to Bible study. She went, and it was through those friends that Penny learned about God and met the person of Jesus. She gave herself to him in 1999. Furthermore, the subsequent changes in Penny’s life led Andrew to investigate Christianity, and by 2001, he was also a Christian.
However, Penny continued to drink, all the while taking on more and more ministries—both within and outside the church. She did volunteer work for a ministry to the Sydney business community, held Simply Christianity courses in her home, organized women’s Christmas gingerbread events, and more. With the increased responsibility, her drinking increased. In 2001, she was able to stop daily drinking. But taking a drink at the end of that year got the cycle of addiction under way again. In 2002, she knew she was again losing control. Full of shame, she didn’t know how or where to get help. She visited Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in August of that year, but didn’t feel that her problem was as big as other people’s. Finally in 2003, after returning to AA for three months and by the grace of God, Penny acknowledged that she was an alcoholic. She called out for help, and God surrounded her with wise people who understood alcoholism and who helped her onto the road of recovery she travels today.
The journey to Overcomers Outreach
Alcoholism is a brain disease. The drinking is a symptom of this disease. Alcoholics have a physical reaction akin to an allergy that creates physical cravings, which in turn generate mental obsession and keep the individual in a destructive cycle of addiction. AA gives people very simple tools to deal with the disease of alcoholism at the point of the mental obsession. However, AA cannot cure the physical craving, which is why true alcoholics can never drink again.
Soon after Penny’s recovery began, many people she was close to who understood alcoholism moved away. Other people in her church lacked the same comprehension of her disease, so Penny struggled. At the same time, at AA, she met biblically illiterate people who substituted things other than God for their ‘higher power’ (see step 2 of the Twelve Steps). The loneliness she felt at both church and AA gave Penny the idea of starting Overcomers Outreach (OO) in Australia. She did some research into the ministry by visiting groups in the UK and US in 2005. Upon her return, she prayed about the idea with a group of friends for about six months before launching the ministry at St Andrew’s Cathedral in December 2005.1
OO is about combining those who know recovery but who don’t know Christ with those who know Christ but don’t know recovery. It’s an umbrella Christian 12-step program in which those attending identify Jesus as their higher power and acknowledge their own addiction—not just to alcohol, but to any mood-altering chemical or compulsive behaviour. OO meetings are similar to other 12-step meetings, but are more structured: the leader discusses the step; then they have a time of sharing in which attendees talk about their own experience at that particular step; a minister will then discuss what the Bible has to say about that step; the group shares prayer points and prays for one another; and then they enjoy fellowship over supper. (As an attending supporter, I am regularly moved to tears by the group’s disarming honesty, their desperate dependence on Christ, and their requests for prayer about things I take for granted.)
Penny herself still attends three AA meetings a week—both for herself and also to seek out others who are seeking Jesus. She spends her days maintaining contact with people she finds along the way—phoning them to see how they are doing, officially sponsoring some, meeting with others to go through the steps, identifying with their struggles, praying with them, encouraging them look to God, encouraging them to come to OO meetings, and encouraging the new Christians to settle into churches where there is often little understanding of addiction.
The joys of a difficult ministry
OO is a ministry of many joys and difficulties. One of Penny’s great joys is seeing Christians find a safe place where they can be honest about their problems and have their struggles recognized and acknowledged as serious illnesses. This brings with it the great joy of seeing sufferers overcome their addictions. Penny’s other great joy is sharing the truth of the gospel with alcoholics and seeing those who have come from AA find their true ‘higher power’ in Jesus Christ.
However, there are difficulties. Among the biggest are the lack of understanding, lack of empathy and judgemental attitudes sometimes exhibited by Christians towards those struggling with addiction. In these situations, Penny prays for grace to abound. The other major difficulty is that working with people recovering from addiction can be demanding and exhausting—especially when Penny still fights her own daily battle with alcoholism.
Nevertheless, Penny puts the hard work into OO—not primarily because she loves the ministry, but because she sees how blessed she is now that she is sober and saved. Once she was reading the story of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12 with a new Christian. They reached verse 9: “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” The new Christian, pondering this question and having understood that accepting by faith that Christ died on the cross for her meant that her sins were forgiven and that she had been granted eternal life, commented, “I guess it would be better to have eternal life than to be able to walk for 40 years”.
For Penny, being sober is a gift—like being able to walk again if you’re paralytic. But living a sober life having been given the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ means grace and peace beyond measure—a double bonus.
This is what motivates Penny to serve others through OO most of all: sharing the great blessings of being sober and being saved.
1 OO groups now exist at Claymore and Lightning Ridge.